This Week in COVID: Vaccinations Are Happening, But the Morgues Keep Filling Up

Wearing a mask won't automatically make gathering indoors for a prolonged period safe, but it's better than nothing.
Wearing a mask won't automatically make gathering indoors for a prolonged period safe, but it's better than nothing. Photo by PS Imaging from StockSnap
It's Tuesday, December 29. More than 507,000 Arizonans have contracted COVID-19 and more than 8,600 have died as a result. Here's what happened in the last week:

Arizona is averaging around 5,700 new cases of COVID-19 each day. The rate at which the disease is spreading through the community appears to have steadied for now. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute, said this was encouraging but compared it to a car no longer accelerating after reaching 100 mph.

"We're flattening at a very high number," he told the media last Wednesday. "This is the highest number it's ever been in the state."

This means we will still see new cases at the same alarming rate as now — it's just not getting exponentially worse, currently.

Over half of hospital beds statewide are in use by COVID-19 patients. This is also true of intensive-care beds. This is the largest number of COVID-19 patients Arizona hospitals have seen at any point in the pandemic. Overall hospital capacity remains critically stretched, with only 10 percent or fewer of beds available statewide.

More than 650 Arizonans spent Christmas on a ventilator due to COVID-19. As of Monday, 55 percent of the state's stock of 2,166 of these life-support devices were in use, with 715 being used by COVID-19 patients. While the devices can save lives, those who survive often suffer post-traumatic stress and long-term health impacts connected to the last-ditch, invasive therapy.

The state's largest hospital system is employing crisis-level standards of care. Banner Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel said the nonprofit is doubling up patients in rooms, expanding intensive-care units into additional areas, and deploying office staff to the front lines to try and deal with the number of patients. Three Banner hospitals in Glendale, Mesa, and Phoenix — Thunderbird, Desert and University — have been operating at more than 100 percent capacity for some time, and Banner's overall system is at 160 percent of the usual peak occupancy in winter. To preserve space, many of the chain's hospitals have had to halt "elective" surgeries, which are surgeries that won't result in immediate death if delayed but are necessary to stop diseases like cancer.

click to enlarge Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health. - STEVEN HSIEH
Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health.
Steven Hsieh
The stress on hospitals is expected to continue for a while. Doctors are now better at treating COVID-19 outside of a hospital, meaning that the people currently in hospitals are generally in more serious condition than past patients. They are also averaging longer stays of up to two weeks in intensive care, compared to the three-to-four days non-COVID-19 patients usually spend there. Hospitalization also lags behind infections, meaning any efforts to reduce infections will take time to reduce the workload at hospitals.

The death toll from COVID-19 in Arizona increased by more than 500 in the last week. There are 8,640 known deaths from COVID-19 in the state. Deaths are not always immediately added to the state's running total. The morgue at Banner - University Medical Center, is dealing with two to three times as many bodies as normal — about half from COVID-19 deaths — and continues to use a refrigerated trailer to store bodies.

Every Arizona county was at the state's highest benchmark of COVID-19 spread for the first two weeks of December, according to state data. Under the benchmarks the state put in place over the summer, many congregate settings like gyms and indoor theaters would have to close. However,  DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ recently admitted that she had amended those restrictions to essentially remove the most serious category from consideration. Christ and Governor Doug Ducey have declined requests from public health and medical leaders, including Dr. Bessel of Banner, to implement additional mitigation measures.

The White House COVID-19 taskforce will no longer proactively provide states with weekly reports.  State officials must now request a report that provides data and recommendations for action tailored to each state. The reports, although privately distributed, have been regularly acquired by the media and have shown that leaders like Governor Doug Ducey have not been following the taskforce's recommendations when it comes to increased mitigation measures.

Holiday travel and gatherings were expected to cause cases to spread even more quickly. The day before Christmas Eve saw the most people travel by air since the pandemic began, according to Transportation Security Administration data. On Monday, the CDC updated its guidelines for the public for New Year's Eve.

"The safest way to celebrate the new year is to celebrate at home with the people who live with you or virtually with friends and family. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others," the CDC says, in addition to providing other advice on staying healthy.

Public health experts are asking people to continue to avoid travel and gathering with people outside their household. Even if just one member of a household interacts with a member of another household, they carry the chance of spreading COVID-19 to their whole household, who could then spread it on to others. This is especially dangerous due to the estimated 40 percent of COVID-19 cases that are asymptomatic. "They feel fine. They don't even know anything is going on. And yet they're dripping with virus," said LaBaer.

If you do gather, do so outside, far away, and while wearing masks, LaBaer recommends. "This is not the year for family get-togethers," he said. A small gathering over the summer left four members of one family dead in Phoenix.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that as many as 90 percent of Americans may need to be inoculated against COVID-19 to achieve herd immunity. Fauci has been slowly revising his estimates upward after initially saying it would only take 60 percent to 70 percent of people, the New York Times reported.

In Maricopa County, 24,620 vaccine doses have been distributed. All five distribution points have been activated, and it's expected that distribution will pick up. The county is currently in phase 1A of the vaccination plan, meaning front-line medical workers in a variety of settings are eligible. If that's you, you can get on the list here. As of Monday, pharmacies are beginning to offer on-site vaccinations in nursing homes.

Bessel encouraged people with symptoms or concerns to get tested for COVID-19 proactively. Banner currently has an excess of antibodies they can provide to help COVID-19 patients, but early detection is needed to make sure the outpatient treatment is most effective. You can find a list of testing locations here. ASU also offers free, quick-turnaround saliva testing here.
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Erasmus Baxter was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.